Still driving customers up the wall after 100 years: Foyles, the bookshop that time forgot
Thursday 23 January 2003
It's in the Guinness Book of Records as the bookshop with the most titles in stock and the longest lines of shelving (30 miles). It boasts the most starrily famous clientele, alive or dead, of any bookshop in history (Eva Peron, the Argentinian first lady, finding herself temporarily short of cash one day, paid for her books with a crocodile-skin vanity case). The guest speakers at its Literary Lunches read like a guide to 20th century literature. It is also, by general consent, one of the most infuriatingly, perversely eccentric retail operations in the history of commerce. Foyles, the most famous bookshop in the world, is 100 years old this year.
It was actually on 14 July, 1903 that two brothers, William, 17, and Gilbert Foyle, 18, sold their first wholesale book. But months earlier, they had started in business by flogging some unwanted textbooks from their parents' kitchen table. They advertised in educational journals, and were startled by the response. Their first year of trading made a princely £10.
In 1906 they bought the shop at 113-119 Charing Cross Road and were away. William Foyle became a bookselling legend, "the Barnum of Books". He employed his 17-year-old daughter Christina in 1928. She later ran his empire for 40 years – and nearly ran it into the ground.
For decades, Foyles has been a shopper's nightmare, with miles and miles of haphazardly arranged titles, non-English-speaking student staff, and a payment system apparently designed by a Victorian lunatic. "It was a byword for dreadful bookselling," said Nicholas Clee, editor of The Bookseller. "They never answered the phone, the assistants never knew anything, and were hired and fired in six months. You could never find any book you wanted."
Would-be buyers had to queue twice. "There weren't any tills or cash registers," remembers The Independent's Christina Patterson, who worked there (and was fired after five weeks) in the mid-80s, "You sat in a little wooden box, and people would have to bring you dockets hand-written by the assistants. I dreaded being asked for help. I couldn't confidently have said which floor I was on."
The trouble was Christina Foyle, who hated any signs of modernity. She refused to allow computers or electronic tills, and spent no money on refurbishments. Her attitude to staff was autocratic: once she fired 40 women for "talking too loudly".
Since she died in 1999, leaving £60m (most of which went to charity, and none to her family), the shop has been run by two of Christina's nephews, Christopher (whom she made a director on her deathbed) and Bill Samuels (whom she cordially loathed). Between them they pulled the shop into at least the 20th century.
Some things don't change, however. You can still spend hours browsing the miles of shelves and marvelling at how everything is in the wrong place. Under "Fiction" you can find Boswell's Life of Dr Johnson, Baudelaire's Prose Poems and the plays of Beaumarchais, and that's just the Bs. Other famous works of conspicuous non-fiction include Rousseau's Confessions, Samuel Smiles' Self-Help and the Greek historian Polybius's Rise of the Roman Empire. With a perversity that borders on the criminal, Proust's 3,000-page A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is filed under "Short Stories". But there's a certain delight in finding out-of-print books, some dating back to the mid-70s, that have been in Foyles' stock for 30 years.
"There's a lot of goodwill in the trade towards Foyle and Samuels, as there would be towards any independent operators, in a world of chain stores" says Nicholas Clee. "They make no attempt to hide their opinion of the shop's past. They want to get things right from now on. After years of incompetence, Foyles still has a very good name."
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 Canadian woman suing police who locked her in van with sex offender who then raped her
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
Game of Thrones really doesn't want Danny Dyer - EastEnders star rejected three times
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
The secret joke hidden in Silence of the Lambs' most famous line
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
King Abdullah dead: We can't afford not to hold Saudi Arabia's royals to account